Violence is an Image: Weaponization of the Visuality During the War in Ukraine

Can an image be a weapon? By the word weapon I mean not the device that helps you win, but an instrument of violence — a device (in this case, a symbolic device) that can inflict harm and damage. 

This question was invoked during the first months of the full-scale invasion when we (the consumers of media content) encountered a flood of images of extreme violence conducted by the Russian army in Ukraine. The images of murdered and tortured victims from Bucha, mass graves from Mariupol, and images of severe destruction of civil infrastructures of other Ukrainian cities are only a few examples. Those shocking images were immediately distributed by journalists and social media users, as well as reflected in various artworks. All with the aim of delivering the evidence of terrible crimes and calling for help and justice worldwide. I remember my own deep frustration and pain when the images from Bucha were released. I also remember that my first and immediate reaction to the unbearable images was to share them on my FB page.

I also remember a wave of social media confessions about extreme feelings of guilt that the unharmed civilians in Ukraine were experiencing in response to the media wave of those images. It was the feeling of guilt of being alive and safe while other innocent people, including kids, were violently murdered. 

Ukrainian artist Katia Libking posted an image on her Instagram page with the words: “Hello world. Today I can’t look at myself and read my words to you, I’m sick of them, sick of the fact that I’m alive”. In the comment to this post, she listed the most violently devastated cities of Ukraine: Irpin, Gostomel, Mariupol, Borodyanka, Izyum.

This post by Katia revealing her self-destructive feelings invoked by the massive media presence of atrocities was, maybe, a turning point for me that made me start thinking about the capacity of the image to be an instrument of violence.

Invisibility and deception

The relationship between warfare and the logistics of images is not a new topic. Paul Virilio wrote about how the modern technologies of perception and visibility are rooted in military practice. Particularly, he shows the development of optical devices is directly connected with the military task of targeting. One of Virilio’s main claims, that being visible equals being a target, is now common sense in Ukraine. It is this logic that defines the general ethics of image circulation. 

On March 18 Roksolana Yavorska, spokeswoman for the Security Service department in the Lviv region said that Russian intelligence receives 90% of information from Ukrainians on social networks. “Your beautiful picture in the background with the location of our military units, checkpoints, and strategic objects of territorial defence is all statistical information for the enemy,” she said. 

In just two days, on March 20, the Russian occupiers shelled the big shopping centre in Kyiv. As a result of the shelling four people died, one person was injured and several houses and a shopping centre were burned down. A few days later, employees of the Security Service of Ukraine detained a man who published videos on TikTok showing that the military equipment of the Ukrainian army was near the shopping centre. This video is supposed to be the reason why the occupiers decided to direct the rocket at this very place. 

Although the war in Ukraine is in general extremely visible, with plenty of services that openly offer visual data related to it, it is still true that since the first months of the war certain consensus on preserving the Ukrainian army’s invisibility and its actions was established.

One of the telling manifestations of this ethic of invisibility is a widespread practice of weaving camouflage nets among Ukrainian women. Initially, the Ukrainian army mostly used manufactured camouflage nets, but soon it became clear that they can be easily tracked by the enemy because of their repetitive patterns, while the hand-produced nets are irregular, making it harder to be captured by optical algorithms. 

The colour structure of the nets mimics different landscapes where the military forces are located, like steppe or swamp during the particular season of the year. Those nets actually substitute the image of a military operation, potentially visible to the gaze of the surveillance system, with the image of a peaceful landscape.

My mom, in particular, is waiving these nets together with her friends on an everyday basis. This production of invisibility became an everyday practice that, as she says, helps them to deal with the war, as it gives them the feeling of producing protection.

At the same time, the opposite strategy of visual deception is widely used by the Russian army. Russian-English media artist and researcher Anna Engelhardt explores the utilization of fake weaponry by the Russian militants to “simulate an army capacity or advantage that does not actually exist”.

She writes that “Russia manufactures these fake weapons for satellite observation, radiolocation, communication interception or human vision. Such fake weapons are made of tarpaulin with the print of a weapon, as seen from above. Satellite photos, being a part of what Jussi Parikka calls ‘infrastructural images’, lure open-source journalists into the adversarial infrastructure of the Russian military”

In this case, the very image of the (nonexisting) weapon is supposed to function as a weapon aimed to prove the army’s strength and power and reinforce its capacity to threaten.

It is interesting to compare these two opposite military strategies of visual deception. While defence relies on the production of invisibility of the actual military capacities, the offensive is employing the production and distribution of the images of threat and power to disguise its lack.

By tracking the visual representation of the war in Ukraine, we can also note that along with the development of the counteroffensive, the visual presence of the Ukrainian army in Ukrainian and international media is also growing. While during the first, mostly defensive phase of the war, the ethics of preserving the invisibility of the Ukrainian army was predominant. Therefore, the beginning of the Russian offensive over Ukraine was represented mostly by the images of Ukrainian victims and destruction caused in Ukraine by Russian occupiers.

Performance of Violence

And here I want to go back to my initial question about the functioning of those images of extreme violence against a peaceful population, widely distributed during the first phase of the war.

Let’s step aside from the realm of war for a while and look at social relationships with images from a more general anthropological perspective. 

Initially, I started exploring the connection between images and violence in an artistic context, such as banning or attacking exhibitions or destroying artworks in Ukraine.  I was intrigued by the ability of the images to provoke such a strong affective reaction.

In the course of my research, I conducted a series of interviews with the people who initiated and performed confrontations with images, trying to understand what was a driving force of such a reaction. I found an interesting recurring inconsistency in their arguments. Most of them declared that they fought against certain images because they felt deeply offended by them, and for this reason wanted to protect other vulnerable viewers from encountering them. Yet, what did not fit into this explanation was the fact that these individuals widely contributed to the distribution of censored images at the same time, gladly encouraging journalists and media users to spread the information about the scandalous accidents of censorship or violence.  

For example, in 2012 I curated an exhibition which was called Ukrainian body at the Visual Culture Research Center that operated at that time at the premises of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. The head of the University attended the show after its opening and was so disturbed by it that locked the door of the gallery immediately. Such an impulsive gesture suggests that he wanted to conceal the images that he saw. Yet, in a few days, he initiated a series of exhibition tours for the media, turning it into the most visible artistic event of the year. Of course, the works that he pointed out as the most unacceptable became the most circulated.

Another similarly loud case was the violent attack on the exhibition Lost Possibility by David Chichkan dedicated to the criticism of the far-right movements in Ukraine. The case went viral, particularly because the attack was recorded by a security camera. Besides the smashed artworks, the attackers also left the inscriptions on the walls of the gallery, blaming the author for being a servant of separatists, that is, an enemy.  Those messages left by the attackers became widely distributed in the media, along with the images of the smashed exhibition and the “nasty” artworks that caused such a reaction. This spectacular and highly medialized case of violence made me realize that the violent attack on the exhibition was in itself first of all a certain visual message by the attackers.

Attack on the exhibition by David Chichkan, recorded by a security camera of Visual Culture Research Center.

View of the destroyed exhibition by David Chichkan. Image, taken from the Internet

The clash that happened two years later confirmed this assumption. The conflict took place in 2019 at the Kyiv Art Academy, during the semester review of students’ works. One of the professors of the Academy smashed the sculptural installation by the student Spartak Khachanov which was called “Parade of Dicks” with his feet and claimed to have made an anti-war statement. The student was a displaced person from Donbas, and the professor was a veteran of the war in Donbas. Yet, what I’m interested in is not their ideological confrontation, but the very structure of the situation that resulted in the violent demolition of the artwork. 

The work was exhibited in the corridor of the Academy. When the teacher first saw it, the author was also present there, together with other students.  According to the professor, he was very offended by the work and started to quarrel with its maker, explaining to him that the work was disrespectful to those who fought in the war. Yet, as the professor explained in his interview, the student continued to behave provocatively:

“So I left. But suddenly I saw that my second-year students were standing and looking at all this junk and me, who had to go around it. I saw the horror in their eyes. I realized that I can’t huddle under the wall, walking around those dicks in front of the children. Then I went after them and smashed  them.”

As we can clearly see here, the decisive reason behind the violent gesture of smashing the artwork was not the offended feeling itself, but the presence of the other students watching him. Or to put it in a more theoretical fashion; the presence of the gaze of the other, observing the encounter with the image. 

This (real or supposed) gaze of the other is present in all the cases of the attacked images that I explored. This gaze is actually a structural element of the public field, where all our gestures are visible and observed by others. The same is relevant for our relationships with images exhibited publicly: it is never a pure interaction between an image and a viewer. Our interaction with images in the public field is always observed and judged by someone else. That is why this interaction always implies a certain performative component: we are not only reacting to the image, but we are also performing our reaction for those who are looking at us while we are looking at the image. 

It is for this gaze of the other that the violence is staged and performed. Taking into consideration the media context, the aim of this performance is to produce another image: an image of dominance.

As you could see from the confession of the quoted teacher, he couldn’t allow his students to see his defeat before the image.  His attack was actually aimed to restore his authority in students’ eyes. And as a result of his attack the media image of the scandalous artwork being destroyed, which is overpowered, appeared. 

View of the destroyed installation by Sparkak Khachanov, Image taken from the Internet

The same is relevant for the head of the University, whose main goal while locking the door of the gallery was not to hide the show, but to demonstrate his control over the discursive field in the University as widely as possible For this reason he invited journalists to the banned show. It was not a problem for him that the troublesome show would be widely visible. On the contrary, his goal was to distribute the image of the show as the show that was banned by him. This was also true for the attackers of the show by David Chichkan who promoted, along with the images of the smashed gallery,  their ability (or at least intention) to control the cultural field of the city. 

Image of Dominance

The structural logic of the violence in a reaction to images in all those cases is very similar (if not the same) to the logic of terrorism, as described by William John Thomas Mitchell. One of his most famous claims made in his book “Cloning terror. War of images” is that terrorism has an iconoclastic structure. He writes that terroristic violence is first of all a spectacular symbolic act aimed at creating and distributing images:

“The destruction of the World Trade Center was a symbolic event, the deliberate destruction of an iconic object designed as the production of a spectacular image calculated to traumatize a whole society.” And further: “It is, in other words, a form of psychological warfare designed to attack, not military opponents, but symbolic targets (preferably including “innocent victims”). It is an assault on the social imaginary designed to breed anxiety, suspicion, and (most important) self-destructive behaviour.”

Importantly, he points out here that terroristic violence is usually directed toward a certain “symbolic target”. For example, he claims that the World Trade Center was chosen as a visual symbol of capitalism, so in a way, it was also an attack on the image.

Both terrorist attacks over an innocent and harmless population, as well as attacks over defenceless works of art, do not make sense unless when we view it as s a performance staged for the gaze of the spectator aimed at producing a spectacle and as an image of dominance and power. In both cases, we see the same logic of violence: the production of a visual message of power (often in the place of its absence or lack).

This visual logic of terrorism is something that explains those ruthless and excessive acts of violence performed by the Russian army against the peaceful population of Ukraine. What is striking in this war is not only that the vast majority of the attacks are not directed at the military but at civil targets. As Kateryna Botanova explains this is one of the dreadful characteristics of this war: “it is aimed at multiplying the number of its victims and sufferers by including more and more people as unwilling and mostly helpless witnesses, observers, bystanders.”

In his book Abu Ghraib Effect, Stephan F. Eisenman points out that the tormentors from Abu Ghraib consciously or unconsciously made their victims reproduce, what he calls, “expressions of subordination”: certain visual codes that signify the defeat and the condition of slavery. He gives some examples of such expressions: “Most of the time, kneeling is a posture that signifies capitulation, and nakedness is a sign of vulnerability. Similarly, to be bound is to be a prisoner”. He claims that this visual vocabulary of the expressions of subordination is rooted in the long history of the representation of torture, that is an expression “of a malevolent vision in which military victors are not just powerful, but omnipotent, and the conquered are not just subordinate, but abject and even inhuman. The presence of the latter, according to this brutal perspective, gives justification to the former; the supposed bestiality of the victim justifies the crushing violence of the oppressor”.

Unknown prisoners, Abu Ghraib, 2003

It is exactly the same “expressions of subordination” that we painfully encountered at the images of tortured civilians from Bucha and other Ukrainian cities occupied by the Russian army, where the excessive cruelty against the innocent and disarmed people was used as a tool to mark them as an inhuman enemy which deserves no mercy, and at the same time, to create the visual proof that that bestial enemy is defeated. The widely distributed images of the Russian atrocities in a way reproduce the visual pattern, described by Eisenman, where “military victors are not just powerful, but omnipotent, and the conquered are not just subordinate, but abject and even inhuman.”

Photo of civilians shot in Bucha, one with wrists tied

In this regard, we can also remember the practice, widely used during the Second World War, of making and distributing pictures of the destroyed and defeated cities as proof and celebration of victory.   

In her book “Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism” Ariella Aïsha Azoulay describes the massive photographic documentation of a destroyed Berlin as the continuation of violence.

“Destroyed German cities were quickly crowded with photojournalists and soldiers with cameras, some of whom acted as if nothing could stop them as they journeyed through the destruction, seeking out prime objects for the photographic gaze”, she writes.

The chapter dedicated to the analysis of the visual representation of the defeated Berlin is titled  “Recoding Photographic Data: Mass Rape in Berlin, 1945”. The main subject of the chapter is the massive amounts of allied soldiers who raped German women. Azoulay poses the question of why there are so many pictures of the destroyed buildings, but no photographic evidence of the rapes conducted in those buildings, while “numerous oral accounts of victims of rape describe the destroyed urban fabric and the presence of armed soldiers in the streets as the arena of their rape”. The answer to this question could be that the very images of the destroyed city function as a metonymic expression of this mass rape, as an expression of dominance and mastery over the city and its inhabitants. 

Of course, while reading those lines it’s hard to avoid parallels with the widely reported mass rapes conducted by the Russian army in the occupied and devastated cities of Ukraine. Knowing about all those cases of the most incredibly cruel rapes it is not possible to read the images of destroyed cities otherwise as an image of a brutal rape. Destruction, mass rapes, destroyed cities as an arena of those mass rapes, and the images of those cities being an arena of rapes – all these became coherent parts of the same representative strategy of creating an image of triumphal invasion.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay also recalls the visual representation of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki tragedy:  “Visual records of the erasure of Japanese cities and their populations were featured in Life magazine. The destruction of a city and its habitants was not censored. Photos of cities “before” and “after” their devastation was classified as visual markers of a mission accomplished, with articles given such titles as “The War Ends: Burst of Atomic Bomb Brings Swift Surrender of Japanese.” 

 “The catastrophe one perpetrates becomes one’s trophy, an object of one’s gaze”, as Ariella Aïsha Azoulay comments on this visual strategy. 

Similarly, Stephan F. Eisenman uses the metaphor of a trophy to describe the images of violence. Referring to the comparison of the images from the Abu Ghraib images to photographs of lynching made by Luc Sante in his article New York Times, he says that in both cases those images  “functioned as trophies, exposing both the racism of the perpetrators and their sense of impunity”. Susan Sontag made the same comparison, stating that “the lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib”. So are the pictures of atrocities in Ukraine, I would add.

I’m referring to all those visual manifestations of domination to claim that excessive and seemingly absurd violence of the Russian army in Ukraine functions in a similar way, as a visual message of power and impunity of perpetrators.

“Against all traditions of photojournalism and other modes of visual revelation, it seems that visuality had become a weapon of authority, not against it,” claims the visual studies theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff. He clarifies the meaning of the word “authority”: “Authority can be said to be power over life, or biopower, foundationally rendered as authority over a slave.” It is exactly the message of such an unlimited power over life that is conveyed and declared by the images of torn corpses of Ukrainian civilians widely distributed across the media. 

Ambiguity of an Image

Let me refer to the term “communicative militarism” here, coined by Ukrainian-Canadian digital warfare researcher, Svitlana Matviyenko. She introduces this term to describe the conversion of commercial communication technologies and military technologies as a decisive feature of contemporary warfare

Viral circulation of the images of violence conducted by the Russian army is a perfect example of such a conversation, where the very functioning of supposedly neutral communicative technologies can be used at the same time as an integral part of the military strategy of intimidation and psychological oppression. Moreover, in this tricky structure, the very digital struggle against violent injustice can be exploited for the distribution of the message of dominance and biopower. That is why the most immediate reaction of internet users to images of extreme violence is often to share and spread them.

Yet, the technological infrastructure described by Svitlana Matviyenko as ‘communicative militarism’ is not exclusively used by the Russian militaries. While the letter used existing communicative technologies to spread the message of their power and dominance, the Ukrainian side used the same tools and the same images to witness the crimes against humanity and influence the decisions of political leaders on the amount and urgency of military support of the Ukrainian Army. 

And here we face the fundamental ambiguity of the image of military violence that can function simultaneously as a part of the strategy of the one who attacks and the one who defends.

I previously referred to the research of Anna Engelhardt on the usage by the Russian army of fake weaponry to simulate an army’s capacity or advantage. The main argument of her article is that the images that have to be created with the help of those fake weapons,  cannot exist outside of specific technical infrastructures: 

“The flatness of the tarpaulin is concealed solely from a vantage point that is infrastructurally predefined — of a satellite or drone. Furthermore, the human eye can’t quite perceive or make sense of these models that are made to fool radiolocation. What looks like a military jet through a radar screen seems like a bouncy castle without the infrastructural mediation of vision machines”. 

What she actually shows is that the operation of the image is defined by certain infrastructures. In her example, it is the specific technical infrastructure that transforms a tarpaulin into a weapon. Discursive or ideological infrastructures function the same way, defining how certain images are perceived and responded to. 

To transform the images of atrocities conducted by the Russian army into weapons in certain infrastructure is needed as well. Which is an infrastructure of fear, or to put it more precisely, the infrastructure of power and social relations based on fear.

That is an infrastructure of authoritarian rule based on the force that is operative, particularly, in contemporary Russia. This authoritarian rule is created and supported by long-term systematic violence which secures the unlimited control of those who are in power over human life. That was something that Russian invaders mistakenly relied on during their offensive in Ukraine, showing complete ignorance of recent Ukrainian history.  

The reaction of the artist Katia Libkind that I referred to shows the violent potential of the image, which is its ability to invoke a self-destructive feeling of guilt and impotence, turning the subject into the unwilling allies of the enemy fighting against herself. 

Sigmund Freud described this mechanism very well hundred years ago, showing that the feeling of guilt is nothing else than a suppressed rage. If you cannot translate your rage into action against those who hurt you, you turn it inwards against yourself. If you cannot fight with those who hurt you, you start fighting with yourself, against yourself, assisting your oppressor. The feeling of guilt is a particular feature of the media experience of war and violence, which basically is an experience of being a passive observer, excluded (at least at the moment) from the observed scene of a horrific occurrence. In this case, the images of the killed or injured can turn into weapons against those who are still alive and unhurt. 

Yet there is an effective remedy against this self-destructive feeling: action. The artist I mentioned, Katia, handled her feeling of guilt invoked by the violent images by diving into volunteering, along with the millions of other people handling their own guilt and anxiety. 

That was not an unprecedented reaction of Ukrainian society towards attempts to govern it with the help of violence and fear. Such a power strategy already proved to fail during the Maidan revolution, when the students’ protest that peacefully expressed dissatisfaction with the state politics was violently demolished by the police in accordance with the former pro-Russian president Yanukovych. That violent action followed the same terroristic logic as described by Mitchel: as the protest was legal and peaceful and didn’t pose any threat to the public order, the brutal attack on it was a purely symbolic act designed as the production of a spectacular image of unlimited dominance and power. 

Yet, the very next day after the images of the beaten protesters were released my mom took the rolling pin from her kitchen and went to Maidan square to fight with police who, as she said “dared to touch the innocent children”. Thousands of other peaceful citizens did the same. In a few months, the regime of president Yanukovych was overthrown and he himself fled to Russia to avoid revenge. 

The same reaction of Ukrainian society to the Russian terrorism we are observing now. While many international commentators of the war in Ukraine, terrified by the images of the innocent victims, are calling the Ukrainian government to seek peace with Russia in order to stop the atrocities and “save lives”, Ukrainian society shows the consolidated will to win not only to survive.

In his recent Twitter post, Elon Musk suggested his proposal for Ukrainian-Russian peace through legal acknowledgment of the Russian annexation of Crimea. He supported his proposal with the argument of Russia’s military superiority: “Russia has >3 times the population of Ukraine, so victory for Ukraine is unlikely in total war. If you care about the people of Ukraine, seek peace.” Yet, the war that is going on in Ukraine is not only about the status of Crimea or other territories, as Musk assumes. Much more is at stake:  it is the value of human life.

Walter Benjamin claims in his famous work Critique of Violence that all violence as a means is either lawmaking or law preserving. One of the crucial points of the “Critique of violence” is that lawmaking is inseparable from violence:  “at the very moment of lawmaking, it specifically establishes as law not an end unalloyed by violence but one necessarily and intimately bound to it, under the title of power”. “Lawmaking is power making, assumption of power, and to that extent an immediate manifestation of violence.” In other words, violence is a means of establishing the law, while military violence is a means of establishing or imposing the new law, the law of the winner instead of the law of the defeated. According to Benjamin, military violence is fundamentally defined by lawmaking character, where the ceremony of peace is aimed to manifest “the new conditions as a new law”.

The lawmaking character of military violence also points to the ambiguity of the crime, since it is the winner who draws the distinction between the crime and law. A crime is the violence of the defeated, while the violence of the winner is justified and sanctioned as a law: 

“In the great criminal this violence confronts the law with the threat of declaring a new law,” says Benjamin. The law preserving violence is, hence, aimed at keeping the established distinction between law and crime, keeping the violence of the criminal illegal and subject to punishment.  

Nicholas Mirzoeff complements Benjamin’s argument: “Authority’s presumed origin in legality is, in fact, one of force, the enforcement of law.” He adds: “this self-authorization of authority required a supplement to make it seems self-evident, which I am calling visuality”

The violent visuality of the Russian attacks on Ukraine is part of such a self-authorization of Russia as an absolute and unlimited power over human life manifested by the consecutive violation of the letter of all of the laws of war, designed to protect civilians. 

Yet this self-authorization can be completed only with the Russian victory. Any ratification of peace on the Russian terms would be a legalization of the committed crimes and an authorization of the violence over the innocent, that is abolition of the universal right to life and establishment of the unlimited right of force as a new universal law. The conclusion of war will also define the meaning of the images of Russian atrocities in Ukraine: will it be the evidence of power or will it be the evidence of a crime? 

Lesia Kulchynska (PhD, born in 1984) is a Kyiv-based art curator and visual studies researcher currently affiliated with Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History. She taught Cultural Studies and Media Studies at the Kyiv Academy of Media Arts, worked as a researcher at Pinchuk Art Center, as a curator at the Visual Culture Research Center and Set Independent Art Space (Kyiv). She curated 

The School of the Lonesome – at The Kyiv Biennial 2015 “The School of Kyiv”. In 2018-19 she was a Fulbright Scholar residing at New York University. Her research interests are the theory of the image and the visuality of violence.

Lesia Kulchynska is also the author of the YouTube talk show “Sincerely about art”, the founder of the “Nomadic school of visual education” and of the web project Service Website. Lesia Kulchynska is the author of Meaning Production in Cinema: Genre Mechanisms (Kyiv 2017), editor of the books: The Right to the Truth: Conversations on Art and Feminism (Kyiv 2019), and Joseph Beuys. Everyone is an artist (Kyiv 2020).

The image on the blog homepage: a black and white photographic postcard of the lynching of Thomas Ship and Abram Smith, in Marion Indiana,  August 7, 1930. Digital Collection of Yale University Library. Creator: Beitler, Lawrence.